A new young worker at a construction site sat down to eat his lunch with the rest of the crew. As an older fellow opened his thermos to pour out coffee, the young worker asks, "What's that?"

The older fellow says, "It's a thermos bottle." "What is it for?" the young worker asks.

"It keeps hot liquids hot and cold liquids cold," the older fellow said.

The next day the young worker arrives at the construction site with his own thermos.

The older fellow asks, "Whatcha got in your thermos?"

"Two cups of HOT coffee and a glass of COLD iced tea."

"Communication does not begin with being understood, but with understanding others," said W. Steven Brown, founder and chairman of the Fortune Group International.

Avoiding misunderstandings is fundamental to a successful workplace, not to mention life in general. Getting along is largely dependent on your communication skills. If doing your job is important, you need to let people know what you are doing, and you need to understand what they want from you.

Curious though it may seem, good communication starts with listening, not talking. Expressing yourself is vital, but understanding what others are telling you allows you to make your arguments more persuasive.

If you want your views to be respected, you must show equal respect when others express their opinions. Show that you understand their words and ideas, even if you disagree with them. A little empathy goes a long way.

Not only is brevity the soul of wit, it is also a demonstration of respect for others' time. Going on and on, even when you are right, turns people off. Learn to make your points clearly and concisely, then let others respond. No one likes to be lectured to.

Watch your tone. So much of two-way communication depends on both sides feeling like they are not in hostile territory. Even when two parties disagree, getting rude and personal is never acceptable. Never. Ever.

With so much of our communication written rather than spoken in person, don't ignore the effect of texts, tweets, e-mails, posts and letters. You would think that because you actually have to take the time to type and transmit, it would be easier to choose your words more carefully. Unfortunately, that is not the case.

Messages committed to print are eternal, it seems, so it pays to read and reread what you are expressing before you hit the send button.

"Words have meaning beyond the obvious. Words have consequences beyond intention," said John R. Dallas Jr., author of "We Need to Have a Word: Words of Wisdom, Courage and Patience for Work, Home and Everywhere."

In other words, think before you speak.

The Chinese philosopher Confucius is said to have once been asked his views on the importance of good communication in getting things done. "What," asked the questioner, "is the first thing to be done if good work is to be accomplished?"

Confucius replied, "Getting the definitions right, using the right words." He elaborated that "when words are improperly applied, issues are misunderstood. When issues are misunderstood, the wrong plans are devised. When the wrong plans are devised, wrong commands are given. When wrong commands are given, the wrong work is performed. When the wrong work is performed, organizations fail. When organizations fail, the people suffer."

And so he concluded, "The first thing is to achieve the proper naming of things."

Here's a joke to further illustrate my point:

Two men went into a diner and sat down at the counter. They ordered two sodas, took sandwiches out of their packs and started to eat them. The owner saw what was going on and approached the men.

"You can't eat your own sandwiches in here," he said.

So the two men stopped, looked at each other and then swapped their sandwiches.

Mackay's Moral: It is wiser to choose what you say than to say what you choose.

Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or e-mail harvey@mackay.com.